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AT ZERO COST, IS IT OVERPRICED?

The best things in life are free. But on the Internet, where even E-mail service can be had at no charge, it is tough figuring out what fits your needs.

Creating a free account with any of these services is simple. It just requires answering a brief online questionnaire, which asks for basic info such as age, gender, and household income. Some inquiries can be a bit more intrusive, however, asking for your real name, address, occupation, and hobbies. Once you've completed the profile, you'll have immediate access to your E-mailbox.

SPAM, ANYONE? Free E-mail, however, isn't always a bargain. In most cases, you will shell out $20 or so to an Internet Service Provider to get access to the Net so you can retrieve your mail. But with some services, such as Juno, you don't need Net access at all--just Juno's software to tap into that company's server. If you only use the Net for E-mail, the savings can be dramatic.

Deciding which E-mail operator to choose may depend on what features you want beyond the basic message sending and receiving that you get with online services such as America Online. ''Filters,'' for example, are popular, and are offered by Hotmail and RocketMail. These sort incoming messages based on the sender's address, say routing messages from your boss to an ''urgent'' folder while junk mail--spam--can be deleted automatically. MailExcite allows members to create a vacation auto-responder. Just plug in the dates you plan to be away and E-mail received during that period is returned to the sender with a note saying you're on vacation.

As convenient as this is, there are hitches. Take storage. Since all incoming messages are stored on the service providers' servers, they allot only 2 or 3 megabytes of hard drive space per member. Some, like Hotmail, automatically delete the oldest messages. Others, such as Juno, do not allow members to attach computer files to E-mail.

And while there may be no out-of-pocket expense, you do pay a price, of sorts, for signing up: Your privacy. By filling out a profile, you are giving the service--and its advertisers--a peek into what you earn, like, and dislike. Each service claims to use your personal data to display ads that fit your interests--a benefit in some instances. And unlike the spam that floods the in-boxes of AOL members, the ads are unobtrusively displayed alongside your E-mail. Still, some may find it unsettling to see an ad for discount airfares alongside Grandma's E-mailed plea to come visit. All the free E-mail companies have ''terms of service'' agreements, which cover privacy and spamming. Prospective members should read these carefully. After all, you get what you pay for.

By Paul M. Eng in New York


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Updated Sept. 4, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1997, Bloomberg L.P.
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